Jennifer Stone and Innovate: Taking a closer look at Alaska’s many local ‘Englishes’

January 29, 2014
Jennifer Stone arrives at Kali Camp

Jennifer Stone arrives at Kali Camp, a cultural immersion program on the North Slope. Her ears were attuned to language variations among locals.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Stone.

Jennifer Stone joined UAA six years ago and teaches the history of the English language, among other classes. That story is long and complex, documenting how many other languages shaped the English we speak today.

To make some of the concepts relevant to her students, Stone looked locally for examples of what happens when different languages splash up against each other.

She could hardly find richer territory than the 49th state, known for varied indigenous languages, and in more modern times, as the landing site for immigrants and refugees from around the world. She’d stumbled into a language mother lode.

When languages clash, Stone says, all sorts of things can happen, from one language killing another, to the mixing of those languages, to a whole new language forming altogether.

Certainly in Alaska, as in most colonized places, local languages yielded to the voice of power and authority. Historical education policy dismissed Native languages to the point of near extinction; recent revitalization efforts have helped support and reignite them.

“That’s part of our legacy as a state that we need to acknowledge,” Stone says. More importantly, “We need to think about how we approach language in the educational setting so that does not happen again.”

Village or local “Englishes”

Yet, even in the messiness of clashing languages, Stone sees tremendous vitality.

“English did not just take over Yup’ik,” she said, “but Yup’ik speakers took in English and changed it.”

What she’s talking about are the wide variety of Englishes that have surfaced all over Alaska. “We have tiny little pockets of language speakers and in each of those local communities, a different variety will pop up.” English that sounds like it has grammatical errors may sound that way because it has been influenced by indigenous sentence structure.

I asked for examples. Stone sent me a 1984 “Handbook for Teachers” on Central Yup’ik from the Alaska Native Language Center. Yup’ik-influenced English includes samples like “He wants to go college.” In Yup’ik, the handbook explains, it is legitimate to treat many nouns (like college) as verbs as long as they are accompanied by ‘go.’

This past summer, Stone participated in a culture camp at Pt. Lay on the North Slope. Her ears were tuned to the varieties of English used there, and she wasn’t disappointed. One example: When locals communicated on their radios, she noted, “They did all the greetings doubled. So, it was a lilting ‘Good morning, good morning,’ and ‘Good afternoon, good afternoon.’” Also, they often mixed Inupiat words like tuttu (caribou) and aiviq (walrus) into English speech.

Stone’s interest and enthusiasm for language varieties is influenced by the work of Geneva Smitherman, a linguist who studied children’s writing performance on national assessments. She found that students who used common features of African American English, like poetic language, without adding errors like double negatives, outperformed their peers on the test.

“One of my questions is, “What does it mean for us as educators if we make the sort of move that Geneva Smitherman did…Hey wait a minute, this is a language born out of a particular culture and set of historical circumstances. Instead of saying it’s wrong, bad, poor, not real English, what if we look at it as a cultural resource that can work to people’s advantage.”

Research initiative

To answer that question, Stone has embarked on a major research effort on language, literacy and technology. Last year, she won an Innovate award, university seed money, to launch the project. In spring, she trained a class of undergraduates in interview techniques and had them partner on nearly 60 interviews with students in freshmen English courses, including those in a college preparatory version.

Participants spoke many different languages, including Tsimshian, Tlingit, Yup’ik, Russian, Yoruba (from Nigeria), Inupiaq, Hmong, Spanish, Ukrainian, Japanese and Thai. The interviewers asked them to describe their experiences in home, school, work and leisure settings, and their access to tools or technologies that influenced their literacy.

The data analysis will take years, but already she’s pieced together the tale of one college freshman who found his way to writing through heavy metal music. The teenager said he wasn’t a great student and never thought of himself as a writer. But in the 10th grade, he and his buddies formed a heavy metal band; his job was to write song lyrics. That, and the writing he did to promote the band and negotiate with performance venues increased his skill dramatically. By the time he got to college, he thought of himself as a writer and his skills were validated in freshman English.

Stone plans at least five academic articles over the next year to explore similar stories from the interviews. She also envisions a book offering a less academic and more broadly interesting discussion of Alaska’s many “Englishes.”

It’s virgin territory, both for village “Englishes” and those shaped by Alaska’s immigrants and refugees. “We know nothing,” she said. “It’s a huge gap in the field.”

NOTE: A version of this story ran in the Anchorage Daily News on Dec. 14, 2013.

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